Aug. 23, 2005
The UCLA men's soccer team enters the 2005 season with some unanswered questions after the loss of its top three goal scorers and its top defender. Fortunately for second-year head coach Jorge Salcedo, the always-deep Bruins are armed with an arsenal of talented players who are ready, willing and eager to step up to answer those questions in a big way.
The question marks stem from the graduation of All-American Mike Enfield and M.A.C. Hermann Trophy nominee Aaron Lopez, as well as the departures of U.S. Under-20 National Team starters Chad Barrett and Benny Feilhaber to the pros. Enfield, Barrett and Feilhaber were UCLA's Top 3 scorers, scoring 24 goals amongst them. Lopez, UCLA's Defensive MVP, scored two of his own.
Who will follow in their footsteps? The Bruins have stockpiled players who have been groomed to step in at any given moment. UCLA has a multitude of talented forwards who will be given the opportunity to lead the way in the attack. Finding the right combination will be the key.
"We lose from our attack Mike Enfield, Benny Feilhaber and Chad Barrett, so guys are going to be given the opportunity to see who can step in and fill their shoes," said Salcedo. "I'm very confident that several of them will step into the forefront and have, if not at least the same production, but even better production than we had last year. We had guys throughout the summer preparing themselves to fill those prominent roles within our attack to help our offense be strong, and I'm confident that we will be."
There are no questions about UCLA's defense. Behind U.S. youth national team players Marvell Wynne, Brandon Owens, Jordan Harvey and Kiel McClung, the Bruin defense is arguably the best in the nation. Goalkeepers Nate Pena and Eric Reed are both coming off outstanding summers in the PDL and will push each other to greater heights as they vie for the starting role.
UCLA's midfield is also solid and well-rounded, not to mention very experienced, with Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year Patrick Ianni and seniors Jonathan Bornstein, Ryan Valdez and Ramon Manak leading the way.
If the past is any indication, these question marks that loom will be eradicated in no time. The Bruins lose talented players every year, and every year they get right back up with a new slate of talented players ready to challenge for the national title. With a team that has been to the NCAA Tournament 22 consecutive years, the formula for success is definitely there.
With three returning starters in Jordan Harvey, Brandon Owens and Marvell Wynne and a 2003 starter in Kiel McClung, UCLA's defense is not only experienced but mega-talented. All four players have played with the U.S. Youth National Teams and have made a collective 114 career starts between them.
Left-sided defender Harvey is the most experienced player on the squad. He has played in 49 games at UCLA, with 34 starts, even while missing time in 2002 and 2001 for U.S. Under-20 National Team assignments. The two-time All-Pac-10 performer has also been effective in the attack, scoring four goals and seven assists in his career. "We expect Jordan to once again have a very solid year," said Salcedo. "In his three years here, he has become one of our most consistent players. I expect his consistency to be just as good, if not better, than it was last year. And hopefully he can combine his consistency with some leadership."
Wynne will play opposite Harvey on the right side and will give UCLA great options offensively as well with his tremendous speed and athleticism. Wynne made a huge impression internationally at the World Youth Championships this summer and returns with that added high-level experience. "Marvell Wynne is one of the best athletes we've ever had here at UCLA," proclaimed Salcedo. "His desire to improve the technical aspects of his game is very high, and that strong desire and drive is going to make him an extremely complete player. So we expect a lot out of Marvell, but I know in return he expects even more out of himself."
Owens will shore up the middle in his third year as a starter. Another member of the U.S. Under-20 National Team, Owens has earned All-Pac-10 honors in each of his two years and has started more games (38) than any other player on the squad. "Brandon Owens is someone who needs to come in right from the start and make attacking players realize it's going to be very difficult for them to beat him," said Salcedo. "If Brandon comes out and has a great start to the season, you'll see that he can be one of the top defenders in the West, if not in the country."
The versatile McClung could play in a variety of positions in the back and in midfield. He was a 16-game starter as a freshman and scored three goals, but injuries slowed him in 2004, limiting him to nine starts and 16 games played. Now healthy, McClung is expected to once again log significant minutes. "We have high expectations for Kiel to have a very solid and consistent year," said Salcedo.
Freshman Brad Rusin is also expected to make a big impact this season. The 6-4 All-American defender trained at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. and was the IMG Defensive Player of the Year. "Brad can be a very dominant aerial player, someone that may surprise a lot of people with his ability to win tackles and to break up plays," Salcedo said. "I'm really hoping he can contribute right away because that would be a great option for us to look to."
Edwige Ligonde will also compete for playing time. Although he is coming off an injury-plagued rookie season, Salcedo notes that Ligonde "proved last year that he belongs at UCLA. At some point in the season, he will be a great contributor to our program."
"With the players we have returning, any combination of them is going to make us very difficult to penetrate," said Salcedo. "We're very confident about that, and we feel like we have a good grasp of what we need to do as a team defensively. The old adage that defense wins championships definitely bodes well."
"We're very excited to see what pans out in the midfield," said Salcedo. "We have a number of combinations that can play in midfield. We have a very solid midfield core with some experience in our three, perhaps four seniors. Sometimes these seniors realize it's their last year and their last opportunity, so they will be very hungry to win a championship. We will also have some freshmen coming in - Sean Alvarado, Jason Leopoldo and Sal Zizzo - who will be pushing some of our returning players. I expect our midfield to be very strong and well-rounded."
Leading the way will be junior defensive midfielder Patrick Ianni, who is coming off a tremendous year in which he was selected the Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year and started on the U.S. Under-20 National Team during its successful World Youth Championship run. A strong physical presence, Ianni will be a force for attacking players to reckon with through his strength and his ability in the air. "Patrick was one of the standouts at the Under-20 World Cup," said Salcedo. "With his experience and his desire to compete, he will bring a lot of tenacity to the midfield."
Salcedo is looking towards fifth-year senior Ryan Valdez to lead by example on the field. Valdez is another strong physical threat with an admirable work effort. His versatility will also be an asset for the Bruin squad.
Jonathan Bornstein will be looked upon to fill the shoes of Benny Feilhaber, who signed a professional contract with Hamburg SV in Germany after a star-making turn at the World Youth Championships. Bornstein had a successful summer as well, scoring several goals at the Maccabiah Games and leading the U.S. team to a silver medal. Prior to arriving at UCLA as a transfer in 2004, he had totaled 53 points in two seasons at Cal Poly Pomona. "Jonathan is coming in healthy and confident and very eager to perform," noted Salcedo. "I expect him to contribute not only goals but also to establish a rhythm and possession within each game."
Senior Ramon Manak, juniors Eli Meschures and Luke Mehring, and redshirt sophomore Damon James bring experience and familiarity with the program to the mix. Manak played in 12 games with three starts, and scored a goal with two assists in his first year with the program. Meschures was hampered by injuries a year ago but saw action in 15 games as a redshirt freshman. After a stellar 2002 freshman campaign in which he earned team Rookie of the Year honors, Mehring sat out 2003 with an injury but came back last season to play in seven games with four starts, including the final two NCAA Tournament games. Mehring has a knack for timely goals, as two of his three career goals have been game-winners. "Both Ramon and Luke bring great knowledge of the game," said Salcedo. "They are two players that can play in various positions and can always be counted upon."
Sophomore Mike Zaher looks to be a frequent contributor on the outside. The U.S. Youth National Team player saw action in nine games last season and had the game-winning goal in UCLA's exhibition win over San Diego State. "Mike Zaher is an extremely athletic, talented soccer player," Salcedo stated. "With his work ethic, I expect him to be a relentless outside midfielder and a player that plays both sides of the ball."
Sophomore Greg Folk is coming off a great off-season with the U.S. Under-18 National Team. He was a starter for the U-18s at the Milk Cup, which the U.S. won for the first time ever. "With one year of experience under his belt, Greg will be a player that will be very tough to keep off the field," Salcedo noted.
Freshman Sean Alvarado could log significant playing time at a defensive midfield position. Salcedo notes that Alvarado's physical presence and approach to the game should allow him to become a "constant contributor on and off the field."
Don't let a lack of numbers on paper fool you - UCLA's group of forwards has the ability to pack a serious offensive punch. With current Major League Soccer players Mike Enfield and Chad Barrett handling most of the offensive duties for the Bruins last season, opportunities were limited for others in the past. This season, however, they will be given the opportunity, and Salcedo is confident that they will shine.
"Our attack this year will be very dynamic," Salcedo said. "Kamani Hill, Evan Corey and Richard Flores all have experience with us now, and I expect any one of them to be one of our leaders in the attack. Each of them brings different qualities, and it will be a matter of who is most consistent as a scoring threat."
Hill earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in his rookie season last year after playing in all 20 games and making 12 starts. The U.S. Youth National Team member ranked second on the Bruin squad with five assists and also contributed two goals. Corey had a successful off-season and has played in 35 games in his three years in Westwood. Flores is the Bruins' top returning goal scorer, having notched three goals in 14 games played last season.
Freshmen Sal Zizzo, Jason Leopoldo and Maxwell Griffin will also be given the opportunity to step up. Prep All-Americans Zizzo and Leopoldo bring scoring ability and youth national team experience, having spent the summer playing with the U.S. Under-18s in several international tournaments. They could see time in midfield as well. Griffin is an athletic forward who Salcedo expects to be a contributor once he adjusts to the collegiate game.
"Our offense will be a combination of numerous players getting forward to create opportunities for each other," Salcedo said. "Each of these players will be given an opportunity, but the good thing is that we have a number of combinations that will eventually form a consistent and dynamic attack.
UCLA has the luxury of having two very capable and worthy goalkeepers in senior Nate Pena and junior Eric Reed. Pena was the opening day starter last season but was hampered by a back injury that took him out of the lineup in September. Reed took over for Pena and played well enough to keep the starting job when Pena's injury healed, posting a 0.73 goals against average with six shutouts and earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Pena bounced back from his injury with a sensational summer in the PDL, recording a 0.47 goals against average and earning PDL Goalkeeper of the Year honors.
"We feel very confident in our goalkeepers," said Salcedo. "Nate had a great off-season and was PDL Goalkeeper of the Year. Eric also performed very well throughout the summer. And Eric Conner will come back after a redshirt season with a firmer grasp of what needs to be done and how to perform at the collegiate level."
The Bruins will not shy away from tough competition. Their first five games will be against NCAA Tournament teams, including two-time defending champion Indiana in an August exhibition. UCLA will also host two of the other three College Cup teams from 2004 - Maryland on Sept. 4 and UC Santa Barbara on Oct. 20.
"Our schedule this year from the beginning of the season and ending with conference play will be a great challenge for us every week," Salcedo said. "It's exciting to have such a great schedule, which we hope can only prepare us for a strong run in the NCAA Tournament."